MANILA – Malacañang said Friday President Rodrigo Duterte will visit Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea within his term, as the chief executive continues to reap criticism for his response to Chinese aggressiveness in the disputed waters.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said there is no exact date yet for the President’s visit but he said the chief executive will visit the island within his term.
“Tingin ko po darating at darating ang panahon na pupuntahan ni Presidente ang Pag-asa Island. Ang pagbisita po ng isang Presidente sa Pag-asa ‘yan po ay ebidensya ng soberenya at kung hindi man ngayon gagawin 'yan ng Presidente tingin ko bago matapos ang termino niya,” Roque told reporters in a video interview.
"Pupunta siya roon hindi lang para ipakita sa buong daigdig ang ating titulo sa Kalayaan kundi na rin para dalawin ang ating mga kasundaluhan at ating mga kababayan na naninirahan doon sa Kalayaan.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reportedly hinted that the President will visit the island within the year.
Lorenzana last year visited Pag-asa Island, triggering concerns from China who claims almost the entire South China Sea.
Pag-asa Island, the second largest naturally occurring island in the Spratlys archipelago, is the sole village of Kalayaan town in Palawan. Claimed by China but is under Philippine control, it is home to some 340 people.
The government has been eyeing to improve Pag-asa Island’s 1.4-kilometer airstrip, but this has been delayed in the face of a possible Chinese aggression and the blooming ties between Manila and Beijing under Duterte.
Duterte vowed in 2017 to plant a Philippine flag in Pag-asa Island, but he scrapped this plan, saying he does not want to offend China, which has several artificial islands in the Spratlys.
Just 15 miles across Pag-asa Island is China’s reclaimed island over Subi Reef, one of the seven Philippine-claimed features in the Spratlys which China seized and turned into artificial islands that boast of modern military facilities.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has sought to downplay Manila's maritime dispute with Beijing in pursuit of improved ties with Asia's largest economy.
He recently visited the Benham Rise, located on the opposite side of Luzon island, to assert the country's rights over it. Critics, however, said Duterte should have visited South China Sea instead.